The Akron school board will ask voters for new money in November, but plans to make budget cuts as well to keep the levy small enough to pass.
Treasurer Jack Pierson gave the board two extreme scenarios on Monday for eliminating an $11.6 million deficit in the 2012-13 school year, which balloons to more than $100 million two years later.
The first extreme option was taxes only, with no more cuts. That would require passing a 10.3-mill levy in November that would cost the owner of a $100,000 home an additional $315 a year. If the board puts it off another year, it would need a 14.5-mill levy costing the same homeowner $444.
The second extreme option was cuts with no new taxes. That would require slashing the budget by $45 million by the 2014-15 school year, with $32 million chopped in the 2013-14 year alone.
Instead, the board announced that it will pursue a combination of taxes and cuts guaranteed to cause pain all around. Taxpayers will have to pass some kind of levy in November, balanced by cuts that could include school closings, layoffs and reduction of employee medical benefits.
The board will meet Aug. 3 to choose a millage for the levy, then submit that to the county auditor to get a precise fix on how much each mill would raise.
The board will meet again Aug. 8 to tweak the millage if necessary and put the levy on the ballot by the Aug. 10 filing deadline.
Voters approved a 7.9-mill operating levy in 2006. The district has managed to avoid returning to the ballot by closing five schools and eliminating jobs, including 17 administrative positions.
Pierson said he's been forecasting the deficits since 2009.
''We've known the writing is on the wall,'' Pierson said. ''It's just getting the right time to do it. Levies are very difficult. The people of Akron have been very generous with passing levies for us. We don't want to have to go for a levy, but we have to.''
Superintendent David James said the levy would be much smaller than 10.3 mills.
''That means we'll have to close additional buildings, which is more in response to declines in enrollment than anything else,'' James told the board. ''Our central office will have to shrink in favor of more site-based services.''
The district's labor contracts will be up in June, but the unions are represented on a labor-management committee for medical costs that can make adjustments on health care without reopening the contracts.
Employees might end up with higher deductibles and co-pays.
''We'll also need to sit down with our union presidents and have that frank conversation with them,'' James told the board. ''Because all of us are going to have to sacrifice if we're going to ask the public for additional revenue.'' However, James warned that cutting costs alone would directly affect the children in the classroom.
''Without a balance between seeking additional revenue and cutting our costs, we will be forced into cutting deeply into our academic programs and that is not something we would like to see happen,'' James said.
School board members began the public campaign on Monday night.
Board President Curtis T. Walker Sr., who was president the last time the board had to campaign for a levy, said the board has been a good steward of the public's money.
''Because of our fiscal responsibility, our cuts in staff, teachers and administration, we have been able to stretch that money,'' Walker said. ''We want to be proactive in keeping our millage as low as possible.''
James Hardy, a school board member who is running for the Ward 8 Akron City Council seat, said the cuts the district already has made were painful, but it will have to cut further to persuade voters.
''We owe it to the taxpayers of Akron, we owe it to ourselves and the children of the district to make sure that whatever we ask for is the absolute necessary amount after we have made the necessary reductions,'' Hardy said.
The board already knows that a mixed approach has the best chance of success in November.
Board Vice President Jason Haas said the citizens committee that worked on the last levy campaign had enough money left over, about $20,000, to commission a telephone poll this month with a live operator asking voters how they felt about the district and whether they would support a levy.
He was unable to provide details from the poll, but one message came through loud and clear: Voters were more likely to support a levy if the district made further cuts.
''There is no magic number,'' Haas said, referring to an ideal millage amount.
Hardy said there were enough positive responses in the poll to make a levy campaign viable.
''We have a chance to make our case,'' Hardy said.
John Higgins can be reached at 330-996-3792 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the education blog at http://education.ohio.com/.